Cassilda’s Songs

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  • I have the tune, now. Whoever finds this, please give it to Therese. I hope it helps.

    I was in the library on a Saturday, working my way through the classics, trying to plug some gaps in my education. I was going in alphabetical order from A to Z, and had just finished Don Quixote. I thought I was up for the Canterbury Tales next, but as I reshelved Cervantes, I saw a book I hadn’t noticed before, just to the left of the Chaucer. I thought it had maybe been misshelved, but I couldn’t find a title or author on the spine, though it did have a peeling library barcode at the bottom. The Dewey Decimal System numbers were illegible.

    It’s an old book. There’s no date anywhere, but it can’t have been printed after the ‘20s or ‘30s, and the typeface makes me think it’s older than that, late 19th century, decrepit. The front is just a small yellow symbol on a black cover, intricate but unfamiliar, apparently meaningless, yet beautiful. When I saw it I thought of the backwards swastikas on old Kipling books- then Indian symbols for good luck, now somewhat more surprising. The book’s title finally lay on the inside page, no author or printing information in sight: The King in Yellow.

    I flipped through the book, and realized it was a play. It wasn’t too long, so I sat down in one of the clumsily upholstered chairs under the ceiling fans and settled in to read.

    I don’t know how to describe this book. It got under my skin, I guess, but that’s not strong enough. It made me want to be a poet, just so I could describe it properly. It’s beautiful and horrific and, above all, blasphemous. That’s not a word you hear very often anymore, “blasphemous.” It’s consigned to period dramas and the occasional irate TV preachers, but it’s the right word. The book is blasphemy, pure and simple, blasphemy against the world, against God, against the English language, against life. But it is also true, the truest and rightest thing I have ever read. I couldn’t – shouldn’t – stop thinking about it, about dim Carcosa, and the Pallid Mask, and above all else, Cassilda and her song. Songs, really, for that long speech at the end, in Act 3, is as poetic and rhythmic (an unusual rhythm, but it’s there) as any lyrics I’ve ever heard.

    I read the whole thing all at once. I don’t know how long it took, completely engrossed, sitting in that awful green chair, but I read it all, and then I stumbled wordlessly home, clutching the book to my chest. I didn’t remember to check the book out, but the magnetic sensors of the door didn’t protest as I carried it past. I don’t know why not, but I didn’t notice that absence until just now. I went home and fell into a strange and dreaming sleep, awoken finally by my alarm in time to go to church the next morning.

    You’ve been reading an excerpt from Unwinnable Monthly Issue 60.

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